We all love a well-designed plaza, or tree-lined streets with shady sidewalks and scenic views — but pretty streetscapes don’t happen by accident. Urban planners look ahead to what people want to see, then design our surroundings that way.
“It’s not just focused on regulation, but vision and place-making and what people want Charlotte to be,” says Monica Holmes about her job as Urban Designer and Planning Coordinator for the city of Charlotte.
“My specialty is the design side of things,” she recently told Adam Williams on the Retail Redeveloped podcast: https://soundcloud.com/retailredeveloped/monica-holmes
Instead of designing how structures look, she looks at the big picture of how structures fit in with their surroundings. How does it meet the street? How does that streetscape look? Where do we put the roads? It means not just looking at the next project, but how an entire area will look 10, 20, or 30 years down the road.
“It takes a long time to see your work built if you’re in our industry,” she says with a smile in her voice. And a long-term view can also help a city avoid problems that come with fast growth that didn’t include proper planning. Adam Williams mentions a city that frequently comes to mind on this subject: Atlanta.
“They hit huge growth when that type of development — sprawling, car-oriented development — was really taking off,” says Holmes. Charlotte avoided that fate, she says, because its explosive growth happened after urban planning became more sophisticated. While Charlotte didn’t avoid sprawl completely, it doesn’t have to think about expensive fixes in its center city that large, land-mass cities like Atlanta and Dallas are taking on now.
“You see these cities trying to right the wrongs they did in the past with larger dollar investments in their cores,” she says. Holmes says going forward, transportation planning is playing a big part in Charlotte’s urban design. That started about 5 years ago with a simple concept — planners asking residents where THEY wanted to see money spent.
“We started listening and making huge investments into where the public opinion lies,” she says, “and people love trails — getting one place to another on a seamless trail connection.”
The Cross-Charlotte Trail is one example of listening and building. The 26-mile trail will connect NoDa to Ballantyne in about 3 years, tying in many popular Charlotte neighborhoods, connections to light rail — about 100,000 residents. People love being able to hop on a bike or walk to get a cup of coffee or meet friends, says Holmes.
“People want to get outside and make an experience of it,” she says. “I think that’s only going to continue to grow once you can get more places.”
Holmes says a Unified Development Ordinance will keep developers on the same page all around the city, and Transit-Oriented Development will lead the way. Development along the existing light rail in SouthEnd, and projects planned for the extension up to UNCC, are good examples.
But there is still a lot of work to do. Census numbers show an average of 44 people a day move to Charlotte, and they all have to live, work, and play somewhere.
“When you’re working in a city that’s growing as fast as we are, it’s hard to keep pace,” says Holmes with a laugh. “We’re working pretty hard!” She points to constant collaboration between urban planners and the city’s transportation department as an example of how planners are trying to make the process seamless.
“Place types” are important, says Holmes, and neighborhoods are having a larger say than ever before about how decisions are made. Developers who listen to neighbors make higher-quality decisions with longer-lasting results, she adds. Holmes and Williams point to apartment buildings whose developers invest in good ground-floor retail spaces as an example.
What else does Holmes want to see going forward?
“That people stay engaged and involved,” she says, because people want a say in how they live, and the city wants to know, too.
“We’re trying to stay live around the city, keeping it cool in Charlotte,” she adds.